Outside his father’s warehouse in Karachi, 21-year-old Hufeza Khan piles jacket after jacket onto a rickety pickup truck. These rejects, he explains, which have issues like broken zippers, missing pockets, or an incorrect size tag, will be sold at a nearby market at a steep discount. The 100 or so jackets that did pass quality control that day will make their way to the port, and from there, to an Amazon warehouse in the United States, where customers can have them delivered to their homes in as little as a day.
Khan’s family business, which markets its jackets under the brand name Price Right, is one of a number of Pakistani companies selling goods on Amazon’s global marketplace. But while Amazon has established a sizable presence in neighboring India — the company says it exported $1 billion in goods from the country and created 300,000 new jobs there since January 2020 — in Pakistan, the tech giant has yet to officially allow sellers onto its platform. The restriction has left merchants like Khan with no option but to resort to a jugaad (Urdu slang for “hack”) to get their products to Amazon customers abroad.
Amazon hosts millions of independent sellers on Amazon Marketplace, who are required to provide banking details and other identifying information in order to sign up. While independent estimates indicate that most third-party sellers are from the United States and China, Amazon often touts how it helps small businesses from all over the world reach their customers. The tech giant allows merchants with companies registered in over 100 countries to sell goods on its website, but some places remain excluded, including heavily sanctioned nations like Iran and North Korea.
It’s not clear why Pakistan also remains off the list, especially since manufacturing is a major part of the country’s economy. It’s also the only large South Asian nation that didn’t make the cut. “We are constantly looking at ways to enable more selling partners to sell to customers globally through our store,” a spokesperson for Amazon said in an email. “We do not have anything new to announce at this time.”
The spokesperson declined to answer questions about why Amazon restricts Pakistani merchants from its platform, but it may be because the country still has a relatively underdeveloped e-commerce sector. Last year, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development ranked Pakistan 116 out of 152 nations on its B2C E-commerce Index, which measures an economy’s preparedness to support online shopping, behind countries like Namibia and Sri Lanka. The Pakistani government also only passed its first official e-commerce policy in 2019, which was designed to introduce banking services and other infrastructure needed for digital commerce.
“I would imagine Pakistan is a few years behind China in terms of expertise in selling to the West directly,” said Juozas Kaziukėnas, founder and CEO of the e-commerce research firm Marketplace Pulse. “The explosion of Chinese sellers came in 2015 and is still continuing, but that is a snowball effect that was accelerated by successful local sellers, local support, etc.”
For the time being, Khan and other merchants like him have resorted to using unofficial workarounds to sell through Amazon, like registering their businesses using overseas bank accounts and addresses. Khan works with a British-Pakistani partner who lives in the United Kingdom, for example. But while small-scale sellers like him have been relying on these loopholes for years, over the last year, Amazon has begun making official inroads with some 38 of the country’s biggest manufacturers.
According to government officials and reports, Amazon representatives have been providing one-on-one business advice to large-scale sellers in Pakistan’s textile, medical equipment, and sporting goods industries, helping them with digital onboarding and incorporating their businesses in countries like the United States. Amazon has provided similar hands-on help in countries such as China, but this is the first program of its kind in Pakistan.
Aisha Moriani, joint secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Commerce, said the 38 chosen manufacturers are part of a pilot program, which, according to her, is Amazon’s method of testing the waters in Pakistan. “Our goal, throughout, has been to open up seller registration for Pakistani sellers,” she told Rest of World, “so that our banking channels are used and so that local companies are able to access Amazon’s services.” Moriani added that the Ministry of Commerce has been trying to encourage business-to-consumer exports in the last year. In December, the Pakistan state bank lifted a tedious bureaucratic step for businesses that made it easier to export up to $5,000 worth of goods.
But while the 38 major manufacturers included in the pilot program receive dedicated aid from Amazon representatives, small sellers like Khan have been forced to continue using creative hacks to reach Amazon customers. Khan uses a VPN to access his Seller Central account in the U.K., a portal used by Amazon merchants to market and sell their products. Other sellers send funds to their Pakistani bank accounts using apps like Wise and Payoneer.
There are enough unofficial Pakistani Amazon sellers that a cottage industry of gig workers has sprung up to support them. It includes Amazon Virtual Assistants (freelancers who aid with everything from customer service to administrative tasks), fulfillment consultants, and web developers. They gather together in Facebook groups with names like “Extreme Commerce” and “eCommerce by Enablers” Although they help clients in many countries, the online freelance marketplace Fiverr lists over 7,000 Pakistanis who advertise themselves as Amazon Virtual Assistants, more than from any other country. Although similar Amazon seller communities exist all over the world, it’s surprising that Pakistan’s support industry has grown so robust, considering the country’s sellers can’t officially use the e-commerce platform.
For Pakistanis struggling to find work in an increasingly bleak economic environment, the Amazon support industry has created a unique opportunity for new jobs. Three years ago, 30-year-old Imran Khan (no relation to Hufeza Khan) lost his job as a building maintenance engineer in the United Arab Emirates. Back in Pakistan, he realized he had little chance to stay in the same line of work. “There aren’t enough skyscrapers in Pakistan compared to the Emirates,” he explained.
One day, as he scrolled the internet, Imran discovered Sunny Ali’s channel on YouTube. A self-described “life, wealth, and business coach,” Ali is one of the many Amazon gurus who have sprung up to help small business owners learn how to succeed on Amazon, which can be notoriously confusing for sellers to navigate. Ali’s webinar was music to jobless Imran’s ears. “In ten years, you will all be millionaires,” Ali tells his audience.
In 2018, Imran signed up for Ali’s $180 e-commerce bootcamp. Now, he says he earns up to $500 per month as a freelance Amazon Virtual Assistant, working online from his bedroom in his parents’ house in rural Punjab. He spends his days assisting Amazon sellers with product research, sourcing, listing, logistics, and advertising.
Imran mostly provides assistance to Pakistani-American sellers based in the U.S., at least for now. If Amazon opens its marketplace to more Pakistani merchants, he’s well-positioned to provide them with the same kinds of support.
Imran said the e-commerce giant could potentially help usher in a wave of economic growth in his home country. With the jugaad no longer needed, more local investors will flock to Amazon than ever before. “And it will boost my career opportunities as a freelance virtual assistant,” he said.